But what have these changes meant to those of us in the business of imagemaking? I’m sure that to many, me – being a technical editor – writing a feature about the business of imagemaking, may appear a little out of my remit. But although at my core is a heart pumping ones and zeros through veins of copper, in order to make a living from imagemaking one is exposed, every single day, to the ever-changing markets and pressures that new technology brings. Things always change: and not always for the better. But change cannot be stopped, no matter how we feel. New people with affordable equipment are spoiling our businesses. We have to find a way to roll with the punches and allow ourselves to evolve to fit into our new environment.
I think it’s worth explaining a bit about what I do, in order to give some context as to why all of the elements affect me directly in a fairly broad market. I run a jobbing production company and small facilities house. We make documentaries and corporates; we also shoot news, record voiceovers, edit, mix, grade and so forth. We do more, but this is not an advertorial! This, I think, gives me a broad view of mid-range production and client expectations in most areas of imagemaking. It is also a part of the industry that should be able to adapt and react quickly to the changes. I say ‘should’ because, if I’m perfectly honest, I feel I’ve taken my eye off the ball a few times and failed to spot the significance of some of the changes brought about by the technology we use day to day. This in turn has, on occasion, brought about some lean times, and a lot of industrial and creative soul searching.
Half of me wanted to title this feature, Sink or swim. But, as well as being too corny – even for me – I thought it sounded too much like the sort of title that sets out a depressing future for most of us involved in imagemaking. Well, it could be taken that way. And the truth is if you feel like that, then chances are the game’s already up. It may not be a title that applies to every photographer or filmmaker: some can sit in their yachts, surrounded by the satisfaction and security that their flourishing career has built for them. The rest of us, however, have to embrace the changing landscape of imagemaking we love the idea of so much. But what about these exciting times in terms of making a living?
When it comes to the most significant change in imagemaking over the past five years, then obviously we are talking about the HDSLR. It’s no secret, however, that these days more images are being created using the smartphone than any actual, dedicated camera. We could dismiss this trait as being just among the consumers. However, most of us would have to admit that we use our smartphones more than we could ever have expected. After all, you can’t take a Nikon D4 or Canon EOS-1D X into a gig without a press pass. Even then, as a pro working in the pit, you can generally only shoot during the first four songs. You don’t get that when you’re using an iPhone. Okay, so the pictures lack the quality, resolution and creative control of a ‘real’ camera. But they are on Twitter, as it happens, with every digital publisher interested in the gig watching #whatevergigitis. As soon as the pictures are on Twitter they are in the public domain and, to a certain extent, a free-for-all. We can have our integrity till the cows come home, but it ain’t gonna pay the bills!
We could interpret this as low-quality press using low-quality images that they wouldn’t pay for anyway. But The Guardian photographer, Dan Chung, for example, was at London 2012 shooting a blog for The Guardian Online called London 2012: Dan Chung’s smartphone Olympics – in pictures. Dan’s at the top of his game and he’s using a smartphone to shoot the Olympics? A gimmick, a sign of the times or a wakeup call for photojournalists to look at their business model? Certainly from Dan’s perspective, he’s one of the best-known bloggers in our industry, so he has already opened up other avenues and raised his profile as being a forward-thinking imagemaker by accepting all change and embracing it. I’m by no means intending to ditch my cameras in favour of a smartphone any time soon. But the appeal of a device that can shoot images and video, edit them, then upload them to the picture desk or straight to the page within minutes, does have a massive appeal to a news editor; especially when it’s in the hands of a journalist writing the copy at the same time.
I mentioned the digital publisher. This is a very broad term for the new breed of journalists producing content for web delivery. They could be working on their own vanity-published site or the wider press but, at face value, the skill set may be the same. Many of them may be working for local press, or a niche magazine. It would be easy to think, “No massive threat there then,” except, many of these publications are part of much larger groups; mostly headed up by a few high-profile flagship titles. Great from a digital publisher’s point of view then that today’s local online feature could be tomorrow’s national front page – complete with ‘as-it-happens’ pictures and video – written and shot by someone getting paid little more than minimum wage. They will certainly make a few enemies among staff photographers. But with newspapers in decline, it’s not just the imagemakers having to adapt to survive.
I’m sure that if you apply the same thinking to most other areas of imagemaking, then the same changes apply to a lesser or greater extent. Unfortunately I have no experience of these sectors; in the same way that I don’t make feature films. However, the implications of technology, as well as the benefits, are something we should give a lot of thought to.
I’m sure some of the work that shifts towards low-cost, lower-production-value images will return; in the same way that the homemade, desktop-published approach to design for print came back, as people realised that image was important. We just can’t afford to wait too long. If you are as old as me you’ll remember the Betamax vs. VHS format war. (Betamax was the best format for quality.)
It’s dangerous to become complacent and rest on the clients you have. One of my biggest mistakes is that I haven’t made significant changes to my website for five years. This is now a huge job, but the site is so tired, it must be affecting business.
From a self-promotion point of view, it’s never been easier to get yourself out there in the social media/blogging universe. I think though, that only the most self-motivated do as much as possible to maximise their online presence.
Keep things fresh and stay excited by your images; maybe even work on a personal project unhindered by clients. It can certainly help with self-motivation.
Keep your ear to the ground, look at what other people are doing and think about how it can be better; even critique your own work – if you aren’t already your own biggest critic.
Look for new opportunities and markets; maybe even applications for your work that haven’t yet been discovered.
Keep an eye on freelance websites: they’re not all low-pay assignments and you may build some new contacts.
My approach to change – despite all of my seemingly pro-smartphone, fast-and-fairly-accurate ramblings – is to use the technology at my disposal to tell better stories, apply more innovative production techniques, put more distance between me and my rivals and prove that quality is everything.
From a business point of view, you’ll never be completely out of the woods. If you make your living from imagemaking – if you have a family to feed and a mortgage to pay – you must adopt a ‘you snooze you lose’ approach and dismiss hints of change at your peril.